My Research Shows that Food Creates Both Comfort and Confusion

Dr Tom at Chicago Water TowerIn this column I present myself as a lifelong scholar of and advocate of farming and food. My graduate research during the 1980s focused on ways to encourage farmers to take better care of their soil and water resources. My professor job at NC State University focused on the social and environmental impacts of farming and food production. You can read all about that in the first part.  Then read a new column I just wrote that ties together food, spirituality and the hippies.  I also include some cool pix and quotes. In addition, read the review I wrote of the fine film “The Future of Food,” by Deborah Koons-Garcia.

To start with I invite you to read how my views on the subject of food biotechnology (a.k.a., GMOs) has changed over the past decade. These changes in attitudes about my profession ran along with some major transformations I have also made in my personal, political, and philosophical lives!!  I have spent over 30 years studying and working to change the food production and distribution system to become more sustainable and successful.  Americans do enjoy an unbelievably cheap and abundant food supply – that has been under serious threat since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s and Chemical Revolution of the 1950’s.

The following story was one in a series of AgBiotech Buzz features known as “Profiles.”  Each month the now-defunct Pew AgBiotech Project focused on an individual, group or organization currently working in agricultural food and biotechnology, and explore how these efforts are having an impact on their life and work. Here is what they wrote about me!!

Thomas Hoban: Change of Heart
AgBiotech Buzz: World of Food – Profile

(Volume 4 Issue 3 – September 22, 2004)

North Carolina State University professor of sociology and anthropology Thomas Hoban describes himself as, at one point, being “caught up” in the enthusiasm over agricultural biotechnology – the logical next step in a long line of technical innovations in farming. Now, he’s a bit uneasy about it.

“The technology is becoming more complex. We are making changes to plants that will have impact the human diet,” he says. “The first crops were designed to impact farmers by saving them money and time. These new products will have direct impact on people. We need more regulation – not less – of the emerging products that are designed to be active in the human body.”

Hoban’s main concern is that strong regulatory programs in the US have been short-changed by the current Bush administration. “They have gone back to [an] approach of ‘taking the shackles off the industry.’ The FDA ignored the consensus recommendation from their 1999 public hearings to require the biotechnology industry to simply notify the FDA before they release a new product [leaving such notification voluntary.]”

This (2004) summer, Hoban warned the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture that biopharming and transgenic animals could cause consumers to rally against all food biotechnology because more and more consumers believe potential risks aren’t being discussed openly.

“As the technology jumps from being fairly simplistic, adding a single gene to a plant, to basically reshaping plants at will, we have to start getting more open with the public,” he says. “The more we use [the technology] and the more complicated it gets, there are going to be greater risks.”

Hoban’s connection to agriculture began in childhood playing on neighbor’s farms outside Chicago. In 1970, he entered the University of Colorado to study ecology, but was having so much fun with the hippie lifestyle he was asked to leave school.

Four years later, Hoban got serious, enrolled in the University of Illinois and earned an undergraduate degree in biology in 1978. In 1986, he earned a doctorate in rural sociology from Iowa State University. Soon after, he took his current position at North Carolina State University studying how people respond to change and to new technologies.

For 15 years, Hoban has kept his finger on the pulse of public acceptance of biotechnology. In 1989, he conducted a survey for the North Carolina Biotech Center to find out how the public viewed biotechnology. Shortly after that, he began speaking around the country to actively endorse the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. “I was fairly excited about the potential,” Hoban says.

When the Europeans began making loud noises against the technology, Hoban initially laughed them off. “I thought look at how silly these Europeans are. They don’t understand the benefits our farmers are receiving,” he says.

Four years ago, Hoban’s views began to shift as he took a more critical look at several of the surveys he had conducted. While most of them showed consumers had a favorable opinion of agbiotech, Hoban believes the surveys didn’t tell the whole story.

“We were consistently finding 65 to 70 percent of Americans were answering positively to questions such as do you believe there is a benefit from it. Most of them thought it was a good idea,” Hoban says. “But, in retrospect, they were answering based on little awareness and knowledge. We were asking people to speculate on things they really didn’t know anything about.”

He began focusing more on the sizeable “minority” expressing opposition to agricultural biotech. “Polls may show that two out of three express support for biotech. That also means one quarter oppose it and 10 percent don’t have an opinion,” he points out. “In this country, at least 25 percent of people have always been negative. That number has jumped in recent years.”

Hoban believes the minority should be taken more seriously because they tend to be more educated about the issue and more politically active. Many of them have already dropped out of the traditional farming food chain and buy organic.

Hoban is worried about how little people know about the technology. “Polls still show the vast majority of American consumers do not understand that they already have been eating genetically engineered foods,” he notes. “When they find out, they resent the fact that no one told them scientists were changing their food.”

To some degree Hoban believes crop and agricultural scientists, who actively support the technology, made the mistake of dismissing the public in a case of “scientist knows best.”

“However, when consumers are nervous, food companies get nervous,” Hoban says. “Agriculture still doesn’t get it that the rules have changed. They no longer call the shots, Walmart does!”

Hoban believes the potential for cross contamination of GM crops designed to make pharmaceuticals with conventional food crops could prove devastating to consumer trust in the food supply.

“The bottom line is that the food retailers, processors, and others have gone on record that food crops should not be used to produce pharmaceuticals,” he says. “You probably don’t want that stuff in food. You don’t want to be the food company identified as having plastic or pig vaccines in your corn flakes.”

Hoban thinks the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture need to be informing people more and should require companies to disclose if their products contained GM products.

“The FDA practices of voluntary pre-market notification and substantial equivalence are no longer valid,” Hoban maintains. “It is time for the US to learn from the EU about regulation.”

Food Means Much More to Us Than We Realize

I was recently invited to write the following column for the American Farm Bureau. It appears in the May, 2008 edition of their electronic newsletter. I wrote this after having distanced myself from all the food research and teaching that I had been doing for over 20 years.

Food Feeds the Spirit of Hip Consumers

Food is essential for life – but it is so much more. Food is an intimate source of pleasure and comfort. Food provides strong cultural connections to our ethnicity. Farmers and food companies that connect with consumers on more levels will be most successful.

People have strong social and emotional connections to food. Increasingly, we view food as the one way that each of us can exert control over our health and the environment. Increasingly we recognize how our food choices have social, economic and political impacts.


I have spent 25 years in research and service to American farmers. During the ‘90s, I analyzed the impacts of GMOs and predicted the rapid rise of organic food. Like many other Americans, I have adopted a European or “hip” consciousness of food.

Food increasingly fills the void modern life created as we moved away from the land. As dutiful consumers, we are conditioned to believe that buying something brings happiness. However, many also recognize the failure of material affluence to satisfy spiritual hunger. Once our bellies are over-full, we seek nurture for our souls through vicarious connections to the land and farmers.

Let me share a dinner conversation I had with Wavy Gravy – known for proclaiming on stage at Woodstock, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” He recalled fondly the shock on kids’ faces as they were handed paper cups of previously untried yogurt (served plain) and homemade granola. Fringe ideas quickly become mainstream (including vegetarianism).

Everything old is new again. Today’s hip views on food harken back to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal of many small, independent farms serving their communities. Such farms are diversified, sustainable, and connected to our lives. Food is no longer seen merely as fuel for our human machines. Food often serves as a source of cultural identity.

For almost a year, I have been living in Carrboro, N.C. – described as “The Paris of the Piedmont.” The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association just hosted their 13th annual farm tour – featuring 35 nearby farms. These farms and many others sell high-value products through local farmers’ markets, restaurants and retailers in our community.

My teaching and research shows that many young people care deeply about food and farming. The same is true for all opinion leaders – folks with higher income and education – and they are all fitting the demographics of hip, savvy shoppers.

Authenticity offers farmers and food companies a “Passport to Prosperity.” Consumers today are eating for fulfillment on many levels.

Local farmers have always been the most credible and sought-after sources of sustenance for local communities. Local farmers can demonstrate to families and leaders that food does not just come from the grocery store. There is an opportunity to learn from models in North Carolina and around the world that locally grown food can successfully reconnect communities and agriculture.

———————————

Dr. Tom Hoban is a professor of sociology and food science at North Carolina State University.

Inspirational and Informed Quotes about Food

As always, I have included some of the most important quotes about food that I could find on the Internet. Hope you find these helpful.

  • One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. ~Luciano Pavarotti
  • In general, mankind, since the improvement in cookery, eats twice as much as nature requires. ~ Benjamin Franklin
  • Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
  • We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are. ~ Adelle Davis
  • The belly rules the mind. ~ Spanish Proverb
  • If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate. ~ Diogenes the Cynic
  • All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast. ~ John Gunther

  • It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato. ~ Lewis Grizzard
  • It’s bizarre that the produce manager is more important to my children’s health than the pediatrician. ~ Meryl Streep
  • Sleep ’til you’re hungry, eat ’til you’re sleepy. ~ Author Unknown
  • We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons. ~ Alfred E. Newman
  • There is no love sincerer than the love of food. ~George Bernard Shaw
  • We load up on oat bran in the morning so we’ll live forever.Then we spend the rest of the day living like there’s no tomorrow. ~ Lee Iacocca
  • Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside. ~ Mark Twain
  • Did you ever stop to taste a carrot?Not just eat it, but taste it?You can’t taste the beauty and energy of the earth in a Twinkie. ~ Astrid Alauda

    • Great food is like great sex.The more you have the more you want. ~ Gael Greene
    • We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink. ~ Epicurus
    • Vegetables are the food of the earth; fruit seems more the food of the heavens. ~ Sepal Felicivant
    • The story of barbecue is the story of America:Settlers arrive on great unspoiled continent, discover wondrous riches, set them on fire and eat them. ~ Vince Staten
    • Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are. ~ Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

  • The more you eat, the less flavor; the less you eat, the more flavor. ~ Chinese Proverb
  • As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~ Joan Gussow
  • An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh. ~ Will Rogers
  • We think fast food is equivalent to pornography, nutritionally speaking. ~ Steve Elbert
  • And, of course, the funniest food of all, kumquats. ~ George Carlin
  • He that eats till he is sick must fast till he is well. ~ English Proverb
  • Cooking is like love.It should be entered into with abandon or not at all. ~ Harriet van Horne
  • Bread deals with living things, with giving life, with growth, with the seed, the grain that nurtures.It is not coincidence that we say bread is the staff of life. ~ Lionel Poilane

Former Top Biotech Booster, Tom Hoban, Gives Favorable
Review to”The Future of Food” Documentary

GM WATCH daily – March 8, 2005

What’s perhaps surprising about this review of “The Future of Food” in the journal Nature Biotechnology is that it was written by Tom Hoban, a man once considered “Biotech’s Leading Propagandist/Pollster in the USA” Tom Hoban started signalling a while back his increasing unease about the laxity of US regulation, warning, “The FDA practices of voluntary pre-market notification and substantial equivalence are no longer valid.”

“Fahrenheit Agbiotech”- Film Review by: Thomas J Hoban,
Nature Biotechnology v.23, p295 , March 2005

(Movie) “The Future of Food” Written and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia;
Lily Films, 2004; 89 minutes DVD and VHS, $20

NOTE: I still agree with this review and will be using it this fall in my upcoming distance education class called “Food in a Global Society” at NC State University

Genetically modified (GM) crops have fallen far short of early expectations in developed markets, and their future acceptance remains uncertain. European opposition has solidified, and studies from Rutgers and others have shown that US consumers are confused and concerned about GM ingredients in their food.

Western consumers are increasingly choosing alternatives to ‘industrial’ foods, as demonstrated by the rapid growth in the market for organic foods. A recent documentary, The Future of Food, provides an excellent overview of the key questions raised by consumers as they become aware of GM food. It also is an unabashed attack on the agbiotech industry and its initial products.

The film’s writer/director, Deborah Koons Garcia, the widow of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, is a prominent figure in the increasingly vocal antibiotech movement in California. Her film integrates vintage footage (e.g., from the 1973 Asilomar conference) with profiles and personal stories from critics of agbiotech. Agricultural policy expert Charles Benbrook, activist Andrew Kimbrell, and others appear as the film’s heroes in a struggle against the release of GM crops into the environment.

Pete Townsend (The Who) Deborah Koons, Jerry Garcia ~ 1970

The chief villain of the piece is none other than Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of GM crops, which is singled out from the rest of the industry. The company’s lawsuit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser is roundly criticized, along with the broader issues of gene patenting and corporate control of the food supply. One segment highlights the political connections between Monsanto and the highest levels of US government, including former George W. Bush cabinet members Anne Veneman and John Ashcroft. The film indicts Monsanto for excessive influence over government regulation, by virtue of political appointments of key corporate executives at the highest levels of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Agriculture. Monsanto refused Garcia’s requests for interviews for the film.

Some of the most disturbing issues raised involve cracks in the regulatory and scientific foundations on which the agbiotech industry rests. Criticism is aimed at the FDA policy of “substantial equivalence” of GM to non-GM crops. The film argues that we don’t know enough about the long-term effects of GM crops on human health and the environment. This will be particularly evident as genetic transformations become more complex (i.e., stacked genes) and the foods become functionally non-equivalent (i.e., nutraceuticals.)

The infamous Starlink and Prodigene incidents are highlighted as instances of regulatory problems. The film makes a case for consumer choice through labeling, industry opposition to which further alienates and confuses consumers. Consumers are already choosing non-GM food by buying more pricey Organic products.

The film also surveys the key social, economic and ethical issues associatedwith GM food crops. As most US consumers have little connection with agriculture or the food production system, Garcia contends that many people do not even realize that GM crops end up in our food supply. Much of the European rejection of GM crops is due to the fact that food is more significant to their culture, so they care more about how their food is produced.

Finally, The Future of Food levels important charges against the public land-grant university system, highlighting concerns that have arisen as universities increasingly trade their independence for corporate contributions. Our universities are supposed to ask tough questions, but now there is limited tolerance for dissenting views within the system. The film describes the struggles over tenure between Ignacio Chapela and the University of California, Berkeley, over his outspoken criticism of the university’s ties to the biotech industry. Citizens expect universities to serve the public interest; in return, academia is expected to pursue intellectual diversity through a truly objective perspective.

As an alternative to GM crops, Garcia presents the case for less industrialized forms of agriculture, such as organic farming-which now represents the ‘gold standard’ for many Western consumers. The film also documents a need for locally grown produce to conserve resources, benefit local farmers and ensure better quality, part of a movement known as Community Supported Agriculture.

Those who argue that GM crops are necessary to feed the world should realize that most Western consumers are not convinced. Research demonstrates that people prefer organic food for a wide array of ethical, emotional and environmental reasons. In fact, major food companies have acquired organic brands so they can cater to this upscale market. The agbiotech industry has been warned that food processors and retailers could effectively hamper or even shut down the food biotechnology enterprise if consumer rejection keeps growing.

Though the film unapologetically presents only one side of the issues addressed, Garcia’s goal is always clear: to raise consumers’ awareness by telling the story of modern, industrial food production and the increasing presence of GM content in our food supply. In the same vein as Super-size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, The Future of Food draws attention to critical questions about food production that need more public debate.

As someone who has monitored the public debate about biotech for 15 years, I welcome this film. The current Bush administration has let the government regulatory system wither on the vine, making good on the 1992 Bush-Quayle promise to “take the shackles off the industry.” Such shortsighted policies are, however, backfiring, as agbiotech increasingly struggles for acceptance by Western consumers.

References

1. Hallman, W.K. et al. Americans and GM food: knowledge, opinion and interest in 2004 (Food Policy Institute, Cook College, Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey; 2004).

2. Organic shoppers may not be who you think they are. Food Marketing Institute (Washington, DC; 2001).

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11 thoughts on “My Research Shows that Food Creates Both Comfort and Confusion

  1. Lynn Abbott

    Tom…. excellent article. It has opened my eyes to some very important facts that I, as many I’m sure, are unaware of, or at least don’t give much thought to, with the busy lifestyles we have. Convenience seems to have won over healthier choices when it comes to food choices, and in my own observation, it seems that in lots of cases, the adults eat the healthier food, and let their children eat the more unhealthy choices, as in “fast food”. This posting has brought many thoughts to mind, as it relates to choosing organic versus convenience, mostly due to this “life in the fast lane” lifestyle of many. Thanks for sharing ……. LA

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